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Orange Bowl: Three Things Learned

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Moral victories are stupid, but UNC should be proud

NCAA Football: Orange Bowl-Texas A&M vs North Carolina Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Last night, UNC’s football season came to a close. They finish with an 8-4 record, a likely top-20 ranking, and a better understanding of what it takes to perform at a national level. All lingering disappointments aside, it’s difficult to be unhappy with Mack’s second year at the helm.

Here are three big takeaways from last night’s loss as we look forward to the offseason.

Glimpse of the Future

It’s been mentioned a few times throughout the past few weeks, but last night was the first time we really had an understanding of what next year’s team will look like. The defense that took the field will return 10 starters, only losing LB/DE Tomon Fox. That offense returns nine starters, losing WR Dazz Newsome and TE Garrett Walston. As one might expect with so much youth, some of it seeing significant minutes for the first time all year, there were highs and lows.

Junior British Brooks and sophomore Josh Henderson only gained 68 yards on 21 carries, as they tried to fill the massive shoes left by Michael Carter and Javonte Williams. Redshirt freshman Khafre Brown had two catches for 40 yards, but missed a potential game-changing touchdown when he dropped a perfectly thrown Sam Howell deep ball while streaking past his defender. The offensive line, which doesn’t have any seniors, also continued to struggle against top talent.

That was plenty of good news, though. Eugene Asante, stepping into Chazz Surratt’s role, led the team with 10 tackles. Freshman wide receiver Josh Downs, had four receptions for 91 yards and pair of touchdowns. Freshman cornerback Tony Grimes was active all night with two pass break-ups and a sack. And, uh, sophomore quarterback Sam Howell still threw for 234 yards and three touchdowns.

So, despite missing four all-ACC players, a starting lineup comprised of 18 returning players for next season took a one-loss SEC team (almost) to the wire. That’s encouraging.

Little mistakes add up

And yet, even with all that youth on the field, the game was tied 27-27 with four minutes remaining. If anything, last night showed that little mistakes amount to significant differences between good and great programs. Texas A&M deserves credit for the victory, but unlike the Notre Dame game, last night felt like North Carolina was the victim of unforced errors.

  • Howell gifted the Aggies their first touchdown, throwing an interception inside UNC’s own 20 yard line on the Heels’ first drive of the night. That ultimately resulted in the first score of the day.
  • The Heels followed that up with two red zone trips, but only mustered six points.
  • Key drops by the receiving corps (mentioned above), or overthrown passes to open receivers by Howell stalled drives at key times.
  • An offsides penalty on Des Evans on 3rd and 5, gave the Aggies a first down at UNC’s 36. They eventually kicked a 23-yard field goal.
  • The inability to gain one yard on three straight plays, effectively ended UNC’s hopes on the penultimate drive. It led to another short field to defend and Texas A&M’s final touchdown.

If any of those events happen differently, North Carolina may be celebrating instead of lamenting. That’s very different from last season, when they often needed everything to go right just to win.

For most of this season, North Carolina was the only team that could beat UNC. In their two worst losses of the season, they gifted Florida State and Virginia 14 points apiece on turnovers and/or short fields. Last night, that tendency appeared again. That habit must be eradicated if UNC wants to become a top tier program.

Setting Expectations

To be clear, next season has been “the year” circled by coaches, staff, and fans as UNC’s coming out party. Nothing about this season should change those expectations. Yes, the Florida State loss was bad, and Virginia was frustrating. But, for a team that won two games just two seasons ago, that stuff just happens. Clemson was always Clemsonsing until they finally didn’t.

And yet, nothing about last night (or this season) felt like the “almost-but-no-cigar” moments in UNCs past. This wasn’t the non-existent offsides in 2015. It wasn’t Judgement Day in 1997. It wasn’t the debacle in Charlottesville in 1996. If anything, last night was a validation that North Carolina is thisclose to returning to the national football scene.

There are some valid questions.

Will the rushing attack truly be a weakness? Can the offensive line add some size and depth? Will the secondary ever be at full strength? Why is it so hard for UNC to force a turnover?

The difference is that those answers now differentiate between eight or ten wins and an ACC Championship appearance (win!?), instead of seven wins and angling for a Tier 1 bowl.

Finishing 8-4 with a top-20 ranking feels “right” for this team. COVID-induced scheduling quirks inflated early rankings and expectations, and UNC failed to capitalized. But, a beatdown of top-10 Miami, sandwiched between two close losses to top-5 programs, is an appropriate ending for a team that believes it’s capable of more.

Bring on 2021.

It has to be better than 2020, right?